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"A Sad and Beautiful World"
The Jim Jarmusch Interview
Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch
(photo by Christopher Felver)

November 22, 2002 | Working in an industry swamped with megalomaniacs and psychopaths, Jim Jarmusch cuts a daring figure. After nearly two decades as a big-time feature film director he's still a modest, approachable fellow. He doesn't inflate his ego with a sense of self-importance, and the same easy-going style infects his films.

Audiences were first introduced to his slightly off-center style with 1984's Stranger Than Paradise, his deadpan ode to boredom. The sight of John Lurie, Richard Edson and Eszter Balint sitting stone-like, unmoving, for minutes at a time may be puzzling to some but to others (including this writer) it's more likely to induce uncontrollable laugher. His second film, Down by Law, featured another trio – Lurie again, along with fellow musician Tom Waits and an Italian comedian barely known in the States at the time named Roberto Benigni – sharing a jail cell and a Louisiana swamp. These fairy tale-like stories of rootless drifters are the epitome of uncategorizable, wonderful independent American film.

Since then, his films have covered a tremendous amount of emotional and logistical territory while always keeping a straight face. Films like Dead Man, Mystery Train and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai each create very specific characters and situations but never beat the viewer over the head with a particular message or lesson. They just give us a peek at lives that sometimes aren't any more exciting than our own.

While this may not sound like the most direct path to box-office success in today's megaplex culture, Jarmusch does have a loyal international following. Even though his funding comes more often from overseas than from within the US, there is a strong American element to the films. Informed by the history, diversity and musical cultures of his home country, Jarmusch's work is a melting pot of impressions, moments, and moods.

Having spent his adult life living in New York City, Jarmusch has seen the place go through a lot of changes. Critics usually define him as a New York filmmaker, and his films all do share a cool downtown sensibility. But one look at his work reveals a willingness to travel far and wide in search of material. Jarmusch, who considers New York to be a country of its own, separate from the rest of the nation in a way, is just as difficult to pin down as his hometown.

The Criterion Collection's recent two-disc release of Down by Law is really a chance for Jarmusch fans to rejoice, given that it's packed with goodies ("Too much stuff," says Jim). And, while Jarmusch may not be one to talk up his own films, he clearly has great affection for his characters and he's more than happy – in a mellow kind of way – to share his memories of the filmmaking process.

Down by Law
Down by Law

Cinema Gotham: You've said that you don't watch your own films after they're done.

Jim Jarmusch: No. I try to avoid it at all cost. I just got a bad thing about looking back over your shoulder. It doesn't make me comfortable.

CG: Do you look back at the shoots themselves the way most filmmakers might look back at the films? Like you're more likely to think about the good time you had on location with Benigni or something like that?

JJ: Yeah, definitely. In fact, the movies sort of become like home movies that are ancillary to the actual experience of making the film, which is somehow more predominant in my memory. You know, the film you make, you work on it and you work really hard and in the end you abandon it at a certain point and say, "Ok, it's done." And that's it, you know, so there's nothing really more to learn from looking at it because you've seen it so many times while preparing it and constructing it. But the actual experience is somehow more valuable to me, in a weird way, in my memory. And Down by Law was particularly, I think that's the film that I have the most fond, positive memories of making. I don't know if it was the group of people and where we were and the time. I don't know exactly why. It was a really kind of amazing experience. Every film I've made has been a really interesting experience but that one I have the most positive memories of.

CG: You've always got some really interesting personalities in your films but it seems like that one has the combination of the most interesting all together at the same time for such a long period of time of the shoot, I'd imagine.

JJ: Yeah, I guess so. And the crew was just amazing, too. Just such a mixture of oddballs from everywhere. But then all my crews that I've worked with are like that. Dead Man had an incredibly varied amazing crew as well but that was a lot harder, more difficult shoot so it didn't have the same kind of feeling. But Down by Law had a lot of great people on the crew, too. It was really a fun mixture of people.

CG: Down by Law has some really incredible black-and-white photography. When you're starting to think of an idea at what point does it become a black-and-white or color film?

JJ: Really, really early, like when I'm even first trying to imagine elements of the script or fragments of ideas that become a script. From the very beginning I'm starting to get visual flashes that I pay a lot of attention to as far as them being signals to some part of my brain. So I've always known very early on whether I wanted to film a certain project in color or black-and-white and often what kind of color or black-and-white as they certainly can vary a lot. That happens really early on for me and I stick to it like an idiot. Even when they offer me enough money to actually make the film adequately if only it'd be in color, I still have refused.

Down by Law
Down by Law

CG: Is there a cohesive thematic quality to that defines a black-and-white film versus a color film for you?

JJ: It's so intuitive I wouldn't know how to analyze it. It's like dream I have and I'm not sure exactly why. The obvious thing is that black-and-white gives you less information and that can be a strength for a certain type of story where you don't want the extra information of what color certain objects are. You want it somewhat reduced in a way. And that can be to a kind of poetic consequence or to a prosaic one depending on the nature of the story or how you're choosing to use it. And I'm not very analytical.

CG: After I saw Ghost Dog I came up with this whole theory that put your black-and-white films in one continuum and your color films in another and how Dead Man and Ghost Dog were the culmination of each continuum and I'm a little embarrassed to say that I have no idea what that theory was any more.

JJ: Whoah. If you remember let me know. I could use it. I honestly don't know either how that works.

CG: What do you think about the Down by Law DVD?

JJ: For me there's too much stuff on it. There's one category of me just blabbering endlessly. I think it would have been better if I had just answered questions that people had sent in, which I really enjoyed. I hate just hearing myself talk so I'll never hear that again.

CG: I was amazed at how long that sequence was.

JJ: Yeah, and I kept asking them to cut it down. Originally they had about 2 1/2 hours of that stuff. So for me, I would be happier if that wasn't on there at all... but they liked it and I trust them. I think Criterion is really a class act as far as how they treat films and the kind of extras, but I'm not a big extras guy. I refuse to do a commentary over the film because I want people to watch the movie and the great thing about DVD is having the chance to put out a really beautiful transfer of a film. I'm really happy with Criterion and that aspect of it, as I am with the extras, too, like there's one thing I love is there are mostly black-and-white Polaroid production stills that are technical stills that were made while we were shooting and you can flip them over and look on the back and see – and I'm probably one of the few people that this is of great interest – but you can find technical information on the back of each photograph. And I love that. When I first saw that I was like "Wow! This is cool" They were very open and they're very happy with all the stuff, so I am, too. Me, I would be happy if it were just the film and a couple trailers. I just refuse to do a commentary over the picture. Maybe it would be good if I was really drunk or if I was with some other people and we did it almost like a radio show and just kind of treated it not so seriously. Maybe some day I'll do something like that but as far as the serious, I don't know, giving you exactly how we devised a shot and what lens we used, I just don't think I could do that.

Int. Trailer Night
Int. Trailer Night

CG: Tell me a little bit about Ten Minutes Older.

JJ: Ah, well Ten Minutes Older is a project, they made two feature length films that are compilations of ten minute films by a whole lot of different directors. I did one, Spike Lee and Werner Herzog and Victor Erice and Wim Wenders and Chen Kaige and Claire Denis and Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard... Nick McClintock, an English guy, had this idea to ask different people to make films that were exactly ten minutes long and had something to do with the nature of time. I liked the idea of something so vague and so precise. So I made one with Chloe Sevigny that's called Int. Trailer Night and it's black-and-white. It's an actress that has a ten minute break and is taken off the set and is put in her trailer for ten minutes, so really not a whole lot happens. I tried to make it mean nothing really and I like it a lot. It was really fun working with Chloe and Fred Elmes photographed it really beautifully. I was partly inspired by, because she's on a cell phone a lot of the time and I really loved when Andy Warhol used to transcribe really mundane phone conversations that don't mean anything at all. Also, there's a beautiful Pasolini film, La Ricotta. Oh man, it's a guy who's playing an extra in a film. It's the crucifixion of Christ and he's one of the other guys crucified, a petty criminal. He's just an extra in the film, sort of a thug-type guy. They let him down off the cross at lunch-time. They give him this ricotta cheese and he runs all the way home to give it to his family and comes back. Anyway, it's the premise of an actor working when not working. [La Ricotta is part of a similar multi-director compilation film, 1962's RoGoPaG.] So, those were kind of inspirations for me. But it was an interesting project. I think they show the films as shorts on Showtime and actually I prefer seeing them alone than as a compilation.

CG: You're one feature director who seems pretty committed to shorts.

JJ: I love short films. I was happy to do that just to have the chance to do another one. And the idea of having to make a film that was exactly ten minutes long to the frame I really loved. I like limitations like that, too. I don't know why there isn't a bigger outlet for short film especially with the reduction in attention spans. Seems to be, you know, endemic to the world.

Jarmusch and Waits
Jarmusch and Waits

CG: That would be great. You just go to a theater pay ten bucks to watch a five minute film.

JJ: Yeah, or just be able to watch them on TV. There should be a whole channel. Shorts channel. "Check out my shorts."

CG: "They're gonna be on from 6:22 to 6:37."

JJ: Yeah, the program guide would get pretty complicated.

CG: I guess MTV is kind of like that, but not that interesting.

JJ: But you know, I made a film that Neil Young asked me to make, Year of the Horse, and when he first called me up and said, "Hey, we're going on tour. Let's make a film of it or shoot some stuff," and I made the mistake of saying to Neil, "Well, how long of a film were you thinking of?" and he said in typical Neil Young fashion, "Hey man, when I'm writing a song I don't think about how long it's gonna be. You know, that's got nothing to do with it!" So I think that's kind of a beautiful pure response and I wish people could think of films in that way. They could be any length at all. They could be twelve seconds or twelve hours. Why is there any restriction? But it's all of course based on distribution and TV time.

Stranger Than Paradise
Stranger Than Paradise

CG: How many times you can show it in a day.

JJ: Exactly.

CG: What kind of music are you listening to these days?

JJ: These days, well I've been listening to a lot of music from the Bayaka people in Central Africa. People call them Pygmies but they would not appreciate that. It's like a white man name. They're really beautiful music. Actually, a friend of mine's a musicologist who's been recording stuff from the Congo and Central African Republic for ten years now, so I've been listening to a lot of that stuff lately. For some reason, maybe its the political climate, I've been listening a lot to the MC5 lately, like really a new appreciation for the MC5. I've been listening to some jazz stuff, Roswell Red, trombone player. I listen to so many things every day.

CG: When you're listening to music sometimes you get these sort of visual impressions. Do your films come from that?

JJ: They do. Often they start by being inspired by music, definitely.

CG: You probably don't like to talk about things you're working on.

JJ: I don't. I'm kind of superstitious. But I tell you, I have an interesting period coming up because usually in the past I'm only able to focus on one film at a time, like a single celled organism, and I spend two or three years on that one thing. And for some reason since Ghost Dog the only thing I've done is make that short film with Chloe, and I've written one script and two-thirds of another script and one-third of another script and three short scripts. And so I've been asleep for a long time but I had a whole lot of dreams. So I have a big backlog of stuff and now I'm kind of letting fate play its hand in what I do next and what order I do these things. But the next couple years are gonna be really busy, productively busy for me, which I'm excited about. I got like two or three features on the fire and some short films as well.

Ghost Dog
Ghost Dog

CG: I know you're not big into labels when it comes to genres and stuff like that but people do say you're a New York filmmaker, even though your movies are not strictly tied to that. Do you feel like there's a New York vibe to your material?

JJ: Man, that's so hard for me to answer. I'm from Akron, Ohio, and I still feel like I'm from Ohio. But I've lived in New York for 25 years or something outrageous, and I feel like it's my country that I chose to move to. You know, not even a city but another country. So I do feel very linked to New York. But I don't know how to explain it. My brother and I, we're Cleveland Indians fans and we were at a Yankee game last year and these guys, really obnoxious Yankee fans behind us, were screaming and screaming. And then we would, you know, support the Tribe. At one point this guy practically grabbed me and said "Hey, are you guys just passing through town or are you fucking transplants?" To which I said, "Uh... we're fucking transplants!" And I realized at that moment we'll never really be New Yorkers. We're just not. So I have mixed feelings but I do think New York has been, at least in the past, a really remarkably different country, separate from the rest of the US and the rest of the world in a lot of ways.

CG: But there is an art community in New York that's made up largely of transplants like yourself.

JJ: Yeah, and you know there used to be a joke back in the 70's and 80's that New York was the cultural capitol of Europe. And then there was graffiti in the 70's that said "US out of New York," which I loved. So yeah, there is a community that is very New York, but I would say it's made up of people from everywhere like New York is and always has been. But I get a lot of labels tagged on my back. Aging–Lower-East-Side–black-and-white–hipster–independent-whatever–whatever, you know. I don't know what half of that shit means. Aging–punk–hipster–white–Negroist. I've read all these things like "huh?"

CG: Is there anybody else in that category?

JJ: I don't know! I'd like to meet them. You know, have some friends.

CG: How do you think the city's doing these days?

JJ: I don't know. I think it's in a big state of denial again as is the whole country. I think people just don't want to, and I include myself, we don't want to think about the true nature of war or attack or death. We don't want to think about that. "That's all it was, just a one shot thing, and that's not gonna happen again." But every move being made by our government is only ensuring that those things will happen again. Not when they say so necessarily. The hatred for Americans' arrogance is so huge that that shit's gonna roll back and it's gonna be really sad and a lot of scary things are possible. So I don't know. I think that people are kind of asleep. At first I thought this city was a lot more interesting like right after September 11th, 2001, for those next few months as sad and scary and devastating as it was it also made the city kind of have its own personality again or its own soul back instead of just being a corporate real estate location. So I don't know how to answer that kind of question. It's so emotional and difficult and I do love New York. I do think of it as a separate country.

Jim Jarmusch

CG: That's why I thought that that was such an interesting thing to say. It immediately made me think of how right after September 11th you'd see these bumper stickers all over the country that said stuff like "today we all became New Yorkers" and I was like, really?

JJ: Yeah, up to a point. But I bet you the people in the White House for the most part think of New York pretty much the way John Rocker does. You could probably transpose his quotes right into their mouths.

CG: Do you feel anything from the political climate seeping into your ideas?

JJ: I'm sure it does but I try to keep that out of there. But I know it does have a strong effect, especially in one particular feature project. But at the same time it contains ideas I've been carrying around for over ten years in notebooks and little fragments here and there, so, you know, I think it's a combination of things. But I try not to make anything that's overtly political, although everything is political on some level, for sure. I'm not unaware of that.

CG: I feel like I should ask you something about Bebe Rebozo but I wouldn't know where to start...

JJ: [Laughs] That was improvised by Tom I believe, right? Tom mentions him.

CG: He does and I think he mentions him again on the DVD.

JJ: That's his obsession. I don't know. Bebe Rebozo. That's so odd that he factored his way in there. Yeah, I don't know what else to say.


Cinema Gotham review of the Down by Law DVD
Down by Law on DVD
Ten Minutes Older



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